On his blog, my friend John Scalzi has recently posted about the privilege of the straight white male in American society by using a decidedly clever metaphor to describe what is often invisible to others, especially to those who hold the most privilege:
Imagine life here in the US — or indeed, pretty much anywhere in the Western world — is a massive role playing game, like World of Warcraft except appallingly mundane, where most quests involve the acquisition of money, cell phones and donuts, although not always at the same time. Let’s call it The Real World. You have installed The Real World on your computer and are about to start playing, but first you go to the settings tab to bind your keys, fiddle with your defaults, and choose the difficulty setting for the game. Got it?
Okay: In the role playing game known as The Real World, “Straight White Male” is the lowest difficulty setting there is.
Please read his entire post, because what I’ll be doing here is furthering some of the conversation John raised, and which my friend Meghan McCarron already furthered (after she and I nitpicked with certain aspects of John’s argument on Twitter, and John said he’d be happy to have other folks take the ball and run with it).
Finally, at the end of the post, Scalzi points out that one doesn’t “choose” one’s own setting – it’s chosen by the computer, and that receiving the easy setting is a stroke of luck. That’s a powerful message – that we did nothing to deserve our privilege, and the fact that we have it is in fact meaningless – but ending there strikes me as a missed opportunity to explore an essential aspect of privilege: its invisibility to those who have it.
All too often, Straight White Men do not see that their setting is easier, and they assume that those struggling against bigger challenges are simply poorer players. At first this is innocent – the Straight White Men are focused on surviving the game themselves, after all. They didn’t design it. But the “easy” setting’s invisibility breeds arrogance, not the humility necessary to acknowledge that you’re “winning” the game because a. the game is easier for you and b. the game itself is designed to benefit you most. The fact that privilege robs us of empathy and humility is nearly as poisonous as the advantages it brings, because humble, empathetic people would not gleefully skip through difficulty while leaving others to suffer.
I wholeheartedly agreed with Meghan’s furthering of John’s metaphor. Part of the problem with privilege is that, when you have it, it’s almost invisible. The same way you might not realize what your voice sounds like until you hear it played back in a message–it seems like it belongs to someone else, unless of course you’re used to hearing your own voice played back to you.
Since Meghan had brought up what had been, for me, a salient defining point about privilege that had been left out of John’s metaphor, I was not going to write my own blog post about it. Well done, Meghan! But then today I came across an update from John on his blog, in which he further discusses his definition of privilege by way of responding to some of the general reactions various commenters on his blog post shared. John is always spot on with so many things–he’s a smartypants, for sure–but one piece of his extended discussion of the Life on the Lowest Setting blog post was a sticking point for me. Here it is:
3. Your description should have put wealth/class as part of the difficulty setting.
Nope. Money and class are both hugely important and can definitely compensate for quite a lot, which I have of course noted in the entry itself. But they belong in the stats category because wealth and class are not an inherent part of one’s personal nature — and in the US particularly, part of our cultural sorting behavior — in the manner that race, gender and sexuality are (note “inherent” here does not necessarily mean “immutable,” but that’s a conversation I’m not going to go into great detail about right now). You can disagree, of course. But speaking as someone who has been at both the bottom and the top of the wealth and class spectrum here in the US, I think I have enough personal knowledge on the matter to say it belongs where I put it.
This is where he sort of lost me (only partially, and on this one issue, to be specific). John had been defining privilege and how some people start out in life (or the roleplaying simulation game) with various benefits due to race, gender, and sexuality, which is all true. We don’t have terms like “the glass ceiling” to describe women’s perpetual inability to break through to the top of their various professions as easily as men for no reason, and we know that women still generally make less than men for doing the same work in many professions. We know that many GLBTQ people are not protected in their workplaces (or outside of them), and we know that systems like Affirmative Action were created to combat an entrenched system of prejudice and bias that had withheld opportunities for people of color. These are no-brainers (except for, I’m sure, people who have their ideological blinders on–hello, Privilege). But John’s dismissal of wealth/class as categories that affect one’s privilege because wealth/class in his estimation is not part of our “cultural sorting behavior” which might determine whether a person receives more privileges in the game of life than others. He discounts wealth/class because it is not “an inherent part of one’s personal nature.”
But this is not true.
First, I need to take apart John’s wealth/class hybrid category. These are two different things. Wealth is material goods and knowledge resources and access to social networks. Class is a cultural identity steeped in more than resources such as those, though it is intimately connected with those items that define wealth.
Class is something different than wealth. It’s a cultural identity that is connected in some cases to wealth but is not defined entirely by wealth alone. Socioeconomic identity is constituted by various social class values, attitudes, and mannerisms. It is something that we are judged on every day, just as an African American or a GLBT person or a woman faces judgments based on their identity every day. I know this because I come from a working class background, and though I have “risen” into the middle class, I do not feel as much a part of the middle class because I have a certain amount of money in the bank or more social networks at my fingertips as I do a part of the working class, which defines how I see the world. Though I crossed out of my working class background into a middle class life, the way that I learned to see the world, and to think of how the world saw me, is still with me. Rings on a tree don’t go away just because new layers grow over them. They’re there, inside, the heart of the tree really.
I have a friend who once told me about a study her Harvard classmate once participated in, where the social scientists observed the differences between working class educational institutions and private upper middle or upper class institutions. One of the clear differences, she told me, was that in the private upper middle and upper class institutions, the students were being taught how to conceive of ideas, how to execute them, and how to direct others in helping you execute your plans. But in the working class institutes, the students were being graded on how well they followed directions. Or, in essence, they were being trained to be the followers–the worker bees–for those students learning how to direct them.
That story was told to me probably a decade or more ago. In the years after I heard it, I finished a Master’s degree at the same university where I received my Bachelor’s degree–a university that is technically labeled as a research institution but generally behaves as a community college, because of the nature of the region in which I grew up: mostly working class, unprepared for college life. Youngstown State University offered (and still offers) heaps of remedial course work that most research institutions leave to community colleges surrounding them to do, because there were few other educational institutes in this region that could fill that role at the time. It’s odd, really, for a person to receive both undergrad and graduate degrees from the same institute–if you’re planning on being an academic, it “looks better” if you move from institute to institute, which can broaden your knowledge based on each institute being different from one another and offering different tracks and themes of study. But I had done both, because I didn’t know that at the time, and because I believed that I couldn’t succeed at another university–as a student, I’d overheard some professors talk about the nature of the working class student body, and how they’d never do as well in other settings. This hurt, but I do think there is truth to it, due to unpreparedness many working class students face. We haven’t been taught to be active learners, after all. We’ve been taught to follow directions. To do what others tell us.
After I finished my MA, I moved to Japan for a couple of years to teach English. This was a huge event in my life. I had lived for a short time in Southern California and for a couple of years in Lansing, Michigan, but the majority of my life had been spent in the general region where I’d grown up. I’d moved from the country to the town, but the town was an old, dying steel town, and it was small. A decent stepping stone for a kid who grew up on a farm learning how to break beef cows to lead behind him with a rope halter. It provided me with something different, but not completely out of my realm. Going to Japan, though, changed my life in incredible ways that I hadn’t even understood were possible, and most likely I didn’t understand those possible changes because I had grown up in such an isolated working class environment, and one of the things about that culture is this: we don’t tend to travel. Some people say it’s because we don’t want to leave what we know, and there is some truth in some cases to that, but it’s also because travel costs a lot of money, and working class people don’t have a lot of that.
So how could I have known just how much travel could change a person’s life, since I hadn’t done a whole lot of it, and what travel I had experienced had been minimal and in not-so-different-places in the U.S. from what I knew (Lansing, Michigan, for instance is an old industrial town that lost a lot of its industry too)?
While I was in Japan, I finished a novel, started a second one, learned a second language, and through the good fortune of having been a published short story writer that a Japanese translator of fiction recognized when I began to blog about life in Japan, I began working part time for a publishing company in Tokyo. The translator had reached out to me through email and brought me to Tokyo for dinner and conversation, and eventually he began finding work for me in his company.
This is all necessary background, trust me.
One evening, late into my two years in Japan, my friend Jodi and I went to a town festival, where we met a group of other ex-pats who were teaching English in nearby towns, and we hung out with them for a while. One of these other foreigners was a 23 or 24 year old African American male who had just graduated college and moved to Japan. We got to talking. He’d grown up upper middle class in Cincinnati, gone to a private school in New England, then did his undergrad degree at an Ivy League university, Brown. At one point in the evening, he told me he’d really come to Japan not to teach but to eventually get a job in a Tokyo publishing house. He had a plan, he said, and figured he could find work in one within a year. His dad knew someone who worked in publishing there, he said. He had an in. And also, he said, there’s always a Brown student who worked at this one company–they sort of held the position for a Brown student, in his description, which for all I know could have been completely inaccurate, but how would I know? No positions are reserved for YSU students, but maybe they are for Brown students? Or for students from other Ivy League schools. When I eventually told him that I was working part time for a Japanese publisher, he seized on me and shook me down for any information I could supply him, and asked whether or not I could get him work. I told him what I could, and said that I’d see, but that I was mainly only working by way of my personal contact.
Later, when Jodi and I went home, I grew upset and started to rage and storm a little bit about that guy. Jodi got me to talk about why I was so upset. Before I’d started talking, she was feeling me out, trying to see if she could touch on what I couldn’t say. She assumed it was because I thought all of the things that guy had received as he grew up seemed unfair. But really it wasn’t because of that. It was because I realized that night that he expected so many things with great confidence, and talked about his achievements with a grandiosity that was completely foreign to me. I didn’t expect much out of life. I was worried, by all accounts in my blog records of that time, that I couldn’t ever return to America because I hadn’t been able to find work there prior to leaving (I left America not because I had some kind of geek-on for Japanese culture, but because it was where I could find work), and I expected that that would never change. What I realized that evening that upset me so much was that I HAD achieved certain things in my life, but I discounted them all as good fortune that had befallen me, or as hands-up others had extended me. I didn’t see any of my achievements or successes in life as belonging to me, being rooted in my own endeavors, in my own inherent abilities. Here was this other guy living in Japan, doing the same thing I was doing, teaching English, but he’d chosen to go there because of his interests, whereas I’d gone there because I needed work and couldn’t find any back home.
I was self-effacing, which is a trait of many working class people. No, no, not me. Please don’t pay attention to me. I’d been taught to be invisible, and whatever I have I have by the grace of god or my benefactors/employers, etc. I had absolutely no confidence in my ability to change my life purposefully. Any good thing in my life “happened to me,” in my worldview. It’s not for nothing that working class people generally rack much of their lives up to fate, luck, chance, or other religious/cosmic forces. There’s a lack of agency for most working class people’s personal natures, and that is built into their identities culturally. It’s as inherent as a boy performing what his culture expects from male gender performance, in order to fulfill his identity as a male, etc.
What I’d like to add to John’s and Meghan’s furthering of Life on the Lowest Setting, the metaphor of privilege as a function of how easy or difficult life is based on character aspects, is that class does indeed count. If you’re a highborn mage instead of a lowly farmer’s son who happens to have a small knack for casting magic, you’ll receive all the best teachers, all the best training in the arcane arts, will have access to all of the materials you might need to cast a spell, which can be quite expensive. Or likewise, if you’re a highborn knight, you’ll receive all the best armor and weaponry and training in arms and defense, whereas the pub master’s kid will mainly know how to throw a punch and will swing wild without any really access to training.
Those are material considerations–the wealth aspect, or knowledge resources–to which a person of a certain socioeconomic identity generally has little access.
But class cultural considerations can also severely restrict some people, by learning your place, by taking direction because that’s what you were rewarded for, rather than learning to plan and set goals, rather than being among people who value reading and education or even networking beyond one’s own family in order to have greater opportunities in the warp and weft of our social order. And these are inherent to one’s personal nature if you have grown up in those conditions.
We judge people by the way they talk. Most people where I grew up say, “I seen,” instead of “I saw,” for instance. And are judged to be rubes by others because of it. The style or manner of appearance is different–the deeply casual is the mark for most working class people. I still cringe at putting on a suit and tie, and in fact didn’t learn how to tie a tie until I moved to Japan, where I had to wear one every day at the school where I taught. Even simple things like that cannot be taken for granted as we suit up for our various roles in the game of life.
Class does matter. Wealth does, too, but class is an identity, an invisible identity in some cases, like mine. Many of my friends now say that they can’t imagine me having grown up on a farm, that I once took part in a 4-H contest to catch a greased pig when I was eleven, that I seem too intellectual and worldly for a background like that. They can’t put my past and my present together, because I’ve crossed over into their world, and I’ve learned their language and mannerisms, much as I learned how to speak Japanese. I can switch codes from the academic circles I work within to the circle of service industry oriented childhood friends who are waiting tables and retailing and fixing cars. And all of those features are part of my inherent personal nature, a personal nature that was nurtured in a working class environment in my formative years.
I’d add class to that list of identity categories that determines privilege.